Let’s demolish a widely held claim, sometimes made by people who should really know better.
The main claim: East Asia is not democratising
Sub-claim 1: Market economies are progressing in East Asia, so there is no link between market economies and liberal democracy.
Sub-claim 2: East Asia is culturally different, some inner spirit of Confucianism, or something, resists liberal democracy.
I’m bringing in Souther Asia as well, because the issues of new economic power and non-western culture are together there as well, and there are strong cultural connections, particularly through Buddhism.
What’s wrong with the above claims?
Large number of East Asian and Souther Asian countries which are now solid if more or less rough, democracies, including the 2nd, 4th. 10th and 12th most populous countries in the word. (Relevant details at bottom of story).
What of the non-democracies? We’re really only talking about one country China. North Korea is non-democratic, but the South which is more populous is more democratic. Vietnam, Laos, and Burma are non-democratic, but Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines are more or less democratic (much less in Burma’s case), and certainly more than they were.
Singapore has an extraordinary and economically successful mix of formal liberal democracy and substantive one party rule. Singapore has a population of 5 million and is now the only other example apart from China of economic success and a non-democratic ‘Asian’ values authoritarianism. Singapore is really about the mildest version of semi-authoritarianism ever devised, with rule of law and good individual rights if you don’t directly take on the legitimacy of the government.
So that’s it the distinctive Asian Confucian Authoritarian model combining political illiberalism with capitalism can be found in China and Singapore. OK throw in Burma, Vietnam and Laos, still a small number. The one thing that makes these ‘Asian model’ claims even superficially viable is that there are so many people in China and it’s had so much economic growth.
Let’s just look at China.
Is it a mature liberal democracy? No.
Is it more democratic than under Mao, and becoming more democratic? Yes.
I don’t want to trivialise or dismiss the terrible human rights violations still going on, but if we look at the trajectory since Mao
End of mass purges and political terror across the whole country.
End of mass starvation from demented economic policies forced on the country by a totalitarian machine
Contested elections at local level
Constant growth of civil society, and the increasing sources of opinion and opportunities for debate created
Much more protection of individuals from state apparatus, even though more is still needed.
Hong Kong incorporated with its semi-democracy and strong rule of law still remaining.
Democracy needs to be understood as shorthand for the following
Rule of law
Freedom of opinion
Civil society (institutions outside the state)
Social tolerance of differences of various kinds
A country in which some of these things is improving is moving towards liberal democracy. China is improving in all these areas. China is moving towards democracy at the same time as the economy is growing. Economic growth is the product of market reforms, and these are feeding into progress towards democracy.
Both advocates and opponents of capitalism are disposed to make claims that China is evidence against the links between capitalism and democracy. They are simply and obviously wrong, if we look at China as a whole, or if we look at the whole of Eastern and Souther Asia.
There has never been democracy without capitalism. Even if we go to the Ancient world, we see commercial trading culture in the early democracies. Capitalism is just a word with insulting overtones in some people’s minds, for individual property rights and enforceable contracts. That is, individuals make voluntary contracts which are enforced by law. There has never been a democracy without those individual rights under law, and there never been a society where such rights are strongly entrenched which has not been moving towards democracy, if it is not already democratic. Economies based on individual property rights, rule of law, and competitive markets have a strong cultural and social tendency towards overall openness, legalism, negotiation, dialogue, pluralism. Of course we can find less pleasant aspects in the development of such societies, but it is the direction of change which is significant, and which brings an end to colonialism or the violent construction of nation states, for example. Finally, on the economic issues, Asian growth was not based on ‘pure’ free market capitalism, but those countries which grew and are growing now were and are the ones which make more market oriented than the other countries, and more market oriented than they had been in their own history. It is those countries which could grown economically, raising living standards for all, and generating the income to pay for education, public services and social protection.
There is no Confucian Asian model. The Confucian ‘model’ is itself open to interpretation and Confucianism has been open to a great variety of interpretations over its many centuries of history. Even just China mixes Confucianism with Daoism, and a very strong and old Buddhist influence, to which we can now add Christianity and an old Muslim influence in some regions. Even in just East Asia, we have Shintoism. Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity deeply embedded in many people. Extend to Southern Asia and we have a Hindu tradition which also influences south east Asia.
The last gasp of the ‘Asian Values’ model would be to refer to more traditional communal family based pietistic cultures, but all these are strongly present in European history and have only been recently displaced from the centre, and have not yet completely disappeared.
East Asian countries that have adopted democracy since the ‘80s, after periods of authoritarian government
Population 230 million. 4th most populous country in the world. World’s most populous Muslim country
Population 92 million. 12th most populous country in the world. Predominantly Catholic in religion.
Republic of Korea (South Korea). Population 50 million. 24th most populous country in the world. Strong Confucian heritage, nearly half the population are Buddhist or Christian
Malaysia. Population 28 million. 43rd most populous country in the world. Mostly Muslim country with significant numbers of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus. A small Confucian minority. Constant rule by one party (in fact a party alliance) and a lively opposition which governs many states in the federal system.
Taiwan (Republic of China). Population 23 million. 50th most populous country in the world. Strong Confucian heritage, but also strong influence of Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity.
The distinct case of Japan
A liberal democracy since World War Two, though one party has been in power most of that time. Population 127 million, 10th most populous country in the world. Strongly influenced by Confucianism, but mostly Buddhist and Shinto in religion.
More marginal cases
Thailand. Recent military government, but still a multi-party democracy. Population 63 million. 21st most populous country in the world. Mostly Buddhist in religion, with a Muslim minority.
Cambodia. Not a mature liberal-democracy, still run by those parts of the Khmer Rouge who broke with Pol Pot, but a lot more democratic than under Pol Pot. Population 14 million. Mostly Buddhist in religion.
India. Rising economic power. Liberal democracy, with a lot of bad spots, but a functioning liberal democracy since independence in 1948. Population 1 billion 177 million. World’s 2nd most populous country. Mostly Hindu in religion, but with the world’s second largest Muslim population.
No details here, but Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal all have claims to be functioning liberal democracies with various ups and downs in recent history, not perfect liberal democracies but liberal democracy keeps persisting and coming back.